Photo: Amiee Stubbs, Nashville Zoo

Researchers reported the first birth of a clouded leopard cub from artificial insemination using a frozen semen sample last week.

The male cub, who has yet to be given a name, was born at the Nashville Zoo on March 1. Researchers from Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute worked with a team from the Nashville Zoo to test the technique.

According to a joint announcement, Heather Robertson, director of veterinary services at the zoo, and Margarita Woc Colburn, Nashville Zoo associate veterinarian, used hormones to induce ovulation in a female clouded leopard named Tula. Smithsonian researchers collected semen a week earlier from a male named Hannibal at their facility, and used a new technique to deposit the small volume of semen into the oviduct where eggs normally rest after ovulation.

Birth using cryopreserved semen is a first for the species, which is listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, and could be key for global conservation efforts, according to the collaborating team.

The two institutions have been working together on clouded leopard conservation for years. Together, they formed the Clouded Leopard Consortium, developed breeding programs and conducted field monitoring projects on the cats in Thailand.

Clouded leopards are one of the rarest and most elusive wild cat species in the world. Researchers suspect that there could be fewer than 10,000 mature individuals left in the wild, and the species has proven difficult with breeding in captivity. The animals are sensitive to auditory and visual disturbances, leading them to be easily stressed when attempting captive breeding programs. This is what prompted the Nashville Zoo to test out artificial insemination.

“This is an enormous accomplishment for both Nashville Zoo and the team at the Smithsonian,” said Robertson. “It means we can collect and preserve semen from clouded leopard populations around the globe and improve pregnancy outcomes from AI procedures in this species.”

Shortly after birth, the cub was separated from Tula for his own protection, as the mother has a history of aggression with her cubs, according to the zoo’s staff. The cub will remain at Nashville Zoo and will eventually be introduced to a potential mate.

According to a Facebook Live video from the Nashville Zoo, a typical litter size for a clouded leopard is one to two cubs. The newborn is still not named, and naming rights have been given to researchers at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute.